US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Tromsoe in the Arctic Circle to see first hand the way climate change is opening a once frozen region to competition for vast oil reserves.
Experts here estimate the value of the Arctic's untapped oil alone -- not including natural gas and minerals -- at $900 trillion, making it a huge prize for the five countries that surround the Arctic if they can reach it.
And with climate warming opening up some 46,000 kilometers a year that had once been bound in ice, the region is expected to burst open, not just with oil exploration but with East-West trade along a more accessible northern route.
"We believe strongly it's important for the five principal Arctic nations to begin working together to make plans for what will almost certainly become greater ocean travel, greater exploration, therefore greater pollution, greater impact of human beings," Clinton said.
The Arctic was a key subject of Clinton's discussions in Oslo with Norwegian leaders who have been among the first to recognize the changing outlook for what they call the "high north."
"I think we both feel we have a very important obligation to get ahead of that and to prepare for what is likely to come," Clinton said at a news conference with Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.
She is taking a tour on a research vessel Saturday to see the effects for herself, in the area around Tromsoe, a city of 70,000 on an island surrounded by snow covered ridges where the sun never sets at this time of year.
It has become a center for research on the Arctic and climate change, and is the headquarters of the Arctic Council, a five nation advisory body that makes recommendations on the management of the Arctic.
Studies have found that betweeen 1979 and 2007, the Arctic's expanse of ice in the warmer summer months has decreased by 45,000 square kilometers per year.
Despite worries that a thawing Arctic could set off a "great game" among powers seeking to carve out their slice of undersea riches, experts here say that under the Law of the Sea only five countries can lay claim to most of the Arctic.
They are Russia, which has about half the Arctic coastline, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States.
Each has a coastline on the Arctic giving them exclusive economic rights to all undersea resources going out 200 nautical miles. Beyond that limit, they can lay claim to the rights to the seabed out as far as the continental shelf extends from their territory.
In the case of those five countries, experts here estimate that their Arctic seabed rights together will encompass over 90 percent of the Arctic, leaving a small central portion as high seas open to other comers.
Norway has already won UN approval for its claim to Arctic seabed rights and has begun producing oil in some areas. Russia's claim was rejected for lack of detailed documentation, but it is expected to return to the UN authority that manages the process with its claims this year or next.
The United States is not a signatory to the the Law of the Sea Convention, so it must wait for everyone else's claims to be adjudicated, a process that officials say could take 15 years, delaying development of its area.
But even countries with no territorial claim to the Arctic are being drawn to the region because, as the ice melts, northern shipping routes are opening between Europe and Asia that cut the distance between them by 40 percent.
A big player is expected to be China which already has made overtures to Greenland and Iceland, seeking not just access to minerals like rare earth and energy but also ports as its extends its trade lines across the Arctic.
Analysts believe that as much as 70 percent of the trade that could in the future move across the Arctic between Europe and Asia will be to and from China.
Currently, that trade is tiny -- just four ships two years ago and 32 ships last year -- but some officials expect it to grow exponentially with as many as 600 to 700 ships a year by 2013.
And US officials believe that the thawing of the ice has significant military implications since more naval and air assets will be needed to protect sea lanes and other strategic interests.